Time to Cut Back the Missile Club

September 14, 1990|By Jonathan Power

NEW YORK — New York. EVERY STEP of friendship between Presidents Bush and Gorbachev throws into relief the mine-fielded territory that the Cold War years have left behind.

Cold War rivalry led to a fatal disregard for the trouble the superpowers were storing up as they sold all over the world nearly every type of weapon, both for the cash it brought and the friendship it was supposed to fashion. And what wasn't sold with official approval was available from Western businessmen on the black market.

Iraq, which over the last 10 years spent more on weapons than Britain, France or West Germany, is merely the tip of it.

Every major power has reason to feel shame. The Soviets have been the Number One sellers of missiles, China the only seller of a long-range missile capable of carrying a nuclear weapon. France has had a peculiar affinity for the most unstable buyers, Iraq, Argentina, Libya and Pakistan; Britain made a cynical decision to recycle OPEC oil billions via arms sales. The U.S. passed up the opportunity to cap this suicidal business in 1978 when it pulled out of negotiations with the Soviets for a treaty to limit arms sales.

Last month Moscow resuscitated the proposal, and this time the opportunity must be grabbed.

Ballistic missiles should be Number One on the agenda because of their ability to penetrate air defenses. By the end of the century, not only will many Third World countries own missiles with chemical and nuclear warheads, they probably will be able to threaten countries as far as a continent away. Iraq could reach most of Europe.

So far the world has seen only three big missile campaigns: German use of 5,000 V-2s in World War II; the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq missile exchange, involving hundreds of launches; and the Afghan government's use of about a thousand Scuds against Mujaheddin forces.

These missiles created tremendous fear among civilians, but they were all too inaccurate and too poorly armed to be militarily decisive. Nuclear and chemical weapons will change this.

Such missiles are a quantum leap in the mechanics of war. They become weapons of surprise that can in one blow alter the outcome of a conflict. Thus, the pressure on a country at war to use them first will be formidable. Only if a country had a means of retaliation, so-called second-strike capability, would a protaganist be deterred from trying it.

Frightened? We should be. New nuclear and chemical powers using missiles that, unlike aiplanes, can't be recalled once launched, will work on hair triggers. One breath of enmity could tempt them to strike.

The Cold War was never this dangerous. Before the U.S. and the Soviets developed second-strike capability and thus acquired stable deterrence, their nuclear forces were essentially restricted to airplanes.

Three years ago, the big Western countries quietly negotiated a ''Missile Technology Control Regime'' to put a lid on what was obviously way out of control.

But it has been a weak instrument, seen as an exclusive, almost secretive NATO operation though it does include Japan. It did not include the Soviets or other European missile sellers, nor the Third World sellers China, Brazil and Argentina. The U.S., its lead member, is compromised by its involvement in Israeli missile programs.

Since last December there has been a substantial effort to broaden the Regime's membership. Moscow has been wooed and the Soviets, though irked over the original blackballing, are now observing its principles of restricted selling.

Moscow would probably formally join if Washington would take up its proposals for an agreement limiting all arms sales.

China must be invited in, too. Tiananmen Square must not close our eyes to the responsible way China is working in the U.N. Security Council, faciliating both the Iraq embargo and compromise in the Cambodian peace negotiations.

Not least, Israel, Argentina, Brazil, India -- even Iraq -- must be invited in. If a country refuses to join, the rest of the world can treat them as it sees fit.

This should be the age of chemical and nuclear disarmament. No country now needs these weapons of mass destruction. We had better get on with this too-long ignored business, otherwise we will surely live to see a chemical or nuclear war during the next 10 years. And the target, wherever you are, could just as easily be you as me.

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